Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween Memory

Excerpt from "I Want to Say" by Natalie Goldberg

I Want to Say Before I'm lost to time and the midwest

I want to say I was here

I loved the half light all winter

I want you to know before I leave that I liked the towns living along the back of the Mississippi

I loved the large heron filling the sky

the slender white egret at the edge of the shore

I came to love my life here

fell in love with the color grey

the unending turn of seasons

Each day when I drive my my sons to basketball practice, I pass the house where I grew up. Each of us has a house that we still think about and which we remember as truly home. For me, it is the house with the round window.
That old house absorbed the shouts and murmurs of my adolescence, saw the birth of my little sister,and was the scene of my wedding;vows said before the fireplace. The house sheltered me and seemed to mourn in tandem, while I grieved my brother within its walls. Two of my sons learned to walk on the old hardwood floors. I knew its every creak , identified while I cautiously tried to sneak in and out long past my curfew. I knew its harmless, but clearly audible ghosts, who inspired wonder and a little fear.
All of our family traditions evolved inside those walls and I think of those experiences as I watch the leaves change and feel the evocative emotions the change of seasons elicits. Many Halloweens were spent there. Each October. My mother would pain the huge round window with orange tempera. A giant, smiling jack-o-lantern would form under her brushes and be perfectly back lit by the warmth of our home. Families began their own tradition of driving by each year to see the giant pumpkin that, in the darkness, appeared to hover in midair.
This simple act of painting a window took time and effort, and I recall that the cleanup was often a nuisance, but it was well worth the trouble. People still remark to me that they remember that yearly pumpkin and that it holds a fond place in their childhood memories.
I remember that there were other traditions we held each Halloween...we lit a fire in the fireplace, often for the first time that year, my mom made special treats that we only had at Halloween (that kept them special)- a caramel, walnut and cream cheese apple dip that was fantastic, and an enormous bowl of buttered popcorn to share with the many children who trick or treated our house. My mother took care and artfully arranged simple but delicious snacks to balance the overindulgence of sweets she knew we would take part in later. It wasn't really about the costumes- although ours were always creative.
I remember the year I was a white rabbit and my infant brother was a carrot. I have a fuzzy snapshot of the two of us- an 8 year old white bunny holding a vaguely annoyed looking baby carrot. We won first prize at the costume contest held on the square; I recall first prize was a silver dollar and our picture in the paper.
Halloween evening at our home often became an informal party with parents, teachers, children from the school and others dropping in and staying to eat, laugh, talk. The little dining room off the entry would be cozily crowded and the front room pressed into service. A tape of creepy music would add to the atmosphere.
What I remember most fondly was not the frantic accumulation of sugar and door to door traipsing down sidewalks whose cracks I could map from memory, but the quantity and quality of time that was afforded me. Time to enjoy a lighthearted evening with family and friends, time to gloat over and meticulously sort my loot, time to listen and remember. The evening seemed to last and last. There were no cell phone interruptions, television was ordered off and remained so all evening. When we were together, we were truly connecting. I had time to think and reflect and enjoy each moment. The only interruptions were the periodic, gentle tappings on the front door.
I hope my boys will remember with similar fondness the Halloweens we have spent together, as a family. Happy Halloween!

Carmel Apple Dip

Granny Smith Apples
Jar of good quality caramel sauce
Cream Cheese
Toasted Walnuts or Pecans
Spread softened cream cheese on serving plate, pour caramel sauce over cream cheese, top with toasted nuts, serve with apples

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Smaller is Better

What is a community?

"A community is (among other things) a set of arrangements

between men and women. These arrangements include marriage, family

structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility

for the instruction of children and young people." Wendell Berry

As a child attending Lincoln Elementary School, I walked halls that were haunted in a friendly way with memories of experiences shared by my grandparents and my mother . I knew, for example, that my grandpa had, in first grade defeated a huge bully who chased him into the coal room and threatened him. I recall sitting wide-eyed for the hundredth time while my grandpa told me how he had squatted, in terror on the cement floor in the darkened coal room waiting for doom in the form of a huge red haired farm boy to destroy him.. My grandpa, aged 6, had picked up a hatchet he had found lying on the floor and as the bully approached my grandpa warned him, “Don’t come any closer,“ and tapped the hatchet repeatedly on the floor as a deterrent. The bully never slowed and menacingly advanced on my grandpa, a boy half his age and size. The hatchet came down on a barefoot with a sickening thud and the bully some toes. The injured assailant left school sadder but hopefully wiser, and my grandpa was expelled for the remainder of first grade. I never tired of hearing that story. When I was victimized by a huge older girl who poked me repeatedly in the back of the neck with sharpened pencils in chorus, I warned her that I had a toe -chopping grandpa that I would ask to exact revenge; it gave her pause. The pencils ceased poking.
While I waited for lunch in the cafeteria, I thought of my grandma and how, during the Depression, she was often starving while at school. With 17 children to feed, and few resources, the children in her family were usually hungry. She told of once feeling so faint with hunger while at school that she quietly ate a purple crayon while at her desk. She remembered how dreadfully sick she had become and how embarrassed she felt. Those stories helped me feel a deep connection with my school and my people, and gave me strength when I was weak. As I walked the halls and ran my small hands along the brick walls, I felt my sense of place and deep connection , identification and ownership with my town. The school was a familiar and comforting branch of my family tree.
Thus, I read with interest the front page story last week regarding the proposed reorganization study completed by the Consulting and Resource Group. Many small towns in our County are struggling with increasing costs and declining enrollment in public schools and are desperately searching for what they hope are fiscal solutions. In much of the Country, small schools are giving up and shipping kids to conglomerate schools.
Interestingly, the trend flies in the face of what we know to be beneficial to children; research clearly shows that children do better in smaller schools.
Researcher Lorna Jimerson identifies ten research based attributes of small schools that have proven benefits to children and learning. First, studies show that the relationships in small schools “intrinsically foster close relationships that not only help children feel connected to the school community and reduce alienation, especially among older students, but also lead to increased student learning. The close relationships inherent in small schools also have a positive impact on educators. For example, teachers in small schools tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, have less absenteeism, and take more responsibility for ensuring that their students are successful in school.” ( Jimerson, Why Small Works in Public School)
Other attributes of small schools listed in the report include:
greater participation in extra-curricular activities, increased school safety, smaller class size, and wider grade-span configurations.
What is lost in consolidation? I think of Cisco school and how much heart was taken from the town when the school closed. I had many friends who attended grade school in Cisco and they seemed to share a special bond throughout high school that remains even today. Schools have historically served as social glue for communities and ties formed there help make a cohesive and caring community.
Other documented negatives of consolidation include:

*Long bus rides
*Negative impact on the social and economic health of the community
*Increase in costs, particularly in transportation
*Higher dropout rates
*Increased anonymity in large schools
*Lower participation in extra-curricular activities by students and all school activities by parents and community members.
Interestingly, although consolidations have been sweeping the country for the past three decades or so, research has shown that in those schools that have consolidated- especially schools over 1,000 students, every predicted benefit has never bore fruit. In fact, many conglomerates are now participating in programs like that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who have given millions in a new “smaller is better” initiative to carve up what only years before had been combined.

Additionally, I believe that the long term effects of consolidation contributes to the decline of rural populations and flight of children to cities. We need to think about the messages that we send rural children,; children whose families have participated in a agri-culture, long before it became agribusiness. We need to remember and reinforce the value of rural living.
Sadly, in the end, often due to apathy, these important social and cultural issues usually tip in one direction or another based on financial concerns. What is needed first then, is passion, commitment to believing in little schools. The understanding that bigger is not always better- and that in education, bigger is almost always worse.
There are many organizations who are designed to assist rural communities to shore up their schools and to hold onto their town’s heritage. The Rural School and Community Trust is a wonderful organization whose goal is to assist rural schools and communities to become strong. The Rural Education Finance Center (REFC), a program of the Rural Trust, is dedicated to improving educational opportunity for rural children by reducing inequities in state school finance systems, strengthening the fiscal practices of rural schools, and ensuring the adequacy of funding to rural schools.

In these troubled times, when Americans are realizing how much has been lost with the sweeping greed of the last 30 years- we are beginning to understand that what has vanished was actually more valuable than the trillions lost on Wall Street; self-reliance, competency, and the ability to trust our own instincts in evaluating what is right for our children and our communities without spending millions of dollars on consulting groups who will always consider fiscally and lead us only in the direction of money. Solutions are available and the power of a few committed individuals can make all the difference.

ERIC articles about consolidation